The state of Madrid’s tierra azul—I can only say “blue clay” so many times a day—is in flux as I write this. Everyone is forming an opinion as they go, and no two reactions have been exactly the same. Serena has gone from calling it “ridiculous” to telling us that it’s “fine,” and that she could play on ice if need be. Roger Federer's coach, Paul Annacone, is taking a “we need to give this some time” approach, emphasizing that it’s the same for everyone. Rafael Nadal says that the blue clay is slippery and speculates that not enough of it may have been put down. Ana Ivanovic, on the other hand, claims that there’s a lot of “heavy” dirt out there. Novak Djokovic finds it hard to judge the bounce thus far but hopes that’s a temporary thing. Let’s hope everyone learns to at least trust the stuff by the time they play their first-rounds, and that it’s not as slippery as advertised. One thing seems to be certain: This wasn’t just a cosmetic change.
For now, thankfully, one thing is set: A men’s draw. Here's a quick breakdown.
Djokovic may not be quite sure what to make of the surface so far, but I’m guessing that the top seed likes his draw. He opens with the winner between two qualifiers, and has Tipsarevic, Simon, and Lopez as his fellow seeds in his quarter. And he avoids any frightening crapshoots against big servers like Isner, Raonic, or Karlovic.
Nole won here last year, and if there’s a lower bounce, there’s no immediate reason why he would be troubled by it. If the surface helps the flatter hitters, he’s in that category, though with his defensive acrobatics, he could be vulnerable to something more slippery. Djokovic wants the French Open as much, or more than, anything else, which should make him more single-minded about finding his best form here and in Rome. I’d expect to see less of the agitated side of the Djoker than we’ve seen so far this year; but, of course, few draws go as smoothly as expected.
Also here: Rochus, Wawrinka, Baghdatis.
First-round match to watch: Baghdatis vs. Garcia-Lopez
Roger Federer makes his clay debut, and has fallen into the same half with Djokovic. But he has more immediate worries: Namely, an opening match against either Milos Raonic or David Nalbandian. Federer knows the latter well, and has had his wars against him; more dangerous, perhaps, would be Raonic, who is coming off a solid semifinal run and a win over Andy Murray in Barcelona, and who pushed Federer to 6-4 in the third in Indian Wells. The early word is that big servers will be helped by the blue, but Federer should like the low bounce.
Also here: David Ferrer, who played at a high level all last week in reaching the Barcelona final; Richard Gasquet, who is in the semis in Estoril at the moment; Thomaz Bellucci, who also took Federer to 6-4 in the third in Indian Wells; and Nicolas Almagro, a semifinalist here in 2010. If Federer wanted a test before Roland Garros, he has one. He typically plays well in Madrid; he beat Rafa in ’09 and took a set from him last year. But he also typically takes a little longer to find his form on clay than he does on other surfaces, and this is his first tour event on the stuff, blue or otherwise, in 2012. The upside for Federer is that the second-highest seed is Ferrer, who has never beaten him.
Three first-round matches to watch: Tomic vs. Stepanek; Gasquet vs. Bellucci; Raonic vs. Nalbandian.
Normally this would be Andy Murray’s section, but the Scot pulled out with what’s been described as a “niggle” in his back. No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the biggest beneficiary of that the withdraw, as he jumps into a quarter of his own, far far away from the Top 3. Or at least one round farther away.
But it hasn’t exactly gotten him out of the danger zone. Two “guys who no one wants to face,” Isner and del Potro, are in Tsonga’s quarter. While the twin towers could meet each other in the third round, the Frenchman, who took a bad loss to Tommy Haas in his opener in Munich this week, will begin against the winner of Ryan Harrison and a qualifier. Tsonga beat Harrison in four on clay in Davis Cup a month ago. After that, Tsonga might have to face Alexandr Dolgopolov, who is 2-2 against him.
Isner or del Potro, who’s the bigger threat? I’m going to say del Potro. He’s been playing well this week in Estoril, and he’s been a reliable threat on clay for years. Isner has proven he can beat anyone this season, but his emergence as a clay “specialist” is recent. As much as he might like this surface and altitude, Isner hasn’t played in three weeks, and it may take him a tournament to get the momentum back that he had through Houston. His opener, against Albert Montanes or Marin Cilic, won’t be a cakewalk, either.
Sleeper: Pablo Andujar
Semifinalist: Del Potro
For a native, Rafa has never loved his capital’s event: There was the altitude, there was the blue clay, and now there’s the advertising signage, which Nadal said today is too low and can make it hard to pick up the ball. It’s all enough to make a Spaniard want to go back to Hamburg.
Still, Nadal has adjusted to conditions here in the past—he’s won the event and been to the final twice, in the three years of its existence. And he's been on a roll on red clay, having not dropped a set in Monte Carlo or Barcelona. He’ll open in Madrid with the winner of Davydenko and Karlovic, a tricky match either way. Davydenko has beaten him on hard courts and pushed him on clay, though he’s obviously not what he once was. And Nadal doesn’t like playing Karlovic, the man he dubbed “the lottery” after sneaking past him in a third-set tiebreaker in Indian Wells last year.
After that, things get more straightforward for the world No. 2. Verdasco, Monfils, and Berdych are the other three seeds in this section. The latter could make it interesting in the quarters. Nadal and Berdych played a barn-burner in Melbourne this year. The Czech nearly had a two-set lead in that one, and he played some excellent clay-court tennis in beating Murray in Monte Carlo two weeks ago.
Also here: Juan Carlos Ferrero
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Federer; Nadal d. del Potro
Final: Djokovic d. Nadal